I am studying Stephen Cook’s new commentary, Reading Deuteronomy.
He thinks sections of Deuteronomy highlight certain commandments from the Ten Commandments.
He has been dealing with a section on the commandment not to murder. This got a little difficult to follow when he insisted that the commands about returning stray farm animals are an extension of the sixth commandment. Yes, this is part of the duty to protect life. But does the definition of murder stretch this far? If it does, doesn’t it trivialize actual murder?
The line between respecting life and respecting property is not clear to me in relation to farm animals. Does this not fall more naturally under the command not to steal or covet than under the law against murder?
So he starts a section on the law against adultery with 22:9-11 about not mixing kinds of seeds in the field or species of farm animals in the yoke or kinds of fabric in clothing. He says that just as adultery is a mixing of marital and non-marital intercourse, so other adulterations can happen in spheres like agriculture and textiles. This has to do with Israel’s symbol system of purity. This allows the purity laws in chapter 23 to also fall under the heading of not committing adultery.
I’m a little stumped by this. I guess I would need to be convinced that the seventh commandment is really about mixing two kinds of intercourse instead of about breaking a vow.
It is true that adultery was forbidden in a society where sexuality was understood very differently than today. (Although the polarization in our society around issues of sexuality shows that we have no agreed-upon view ourselves.) Cook says Israel saw itself as an organic entity “rooted in God’s deep soil, highly dependent on stable, tightknit families and kin groups.” So adultery was a more serious crime than in our society. It threatened what Cook earlier called the “umbilical” relationship between generations. Hence, the death penalty (22:22).
Deuteronomy carries forward death penalties from earlier law collections. However, it provides ways to avoid its actual use. Cook thinks executions for adultery were extremely rare.
Today people sometimes interpret the emphasis on virginity and the heinousness of adultery as ways a patriarchy controlled women. The crime of adultery was like a property crime against the father or the husband. However, Cook says that Deuteronomy actually conceives it as a crime against the father’s house and against Israel itself. You can’t take this out of the context of tribe, clan, and family. The crime of adultery is against society, not just a particular man.
A woman is treated as a moral agent and not merely property. The same penalty applies to men and women (22:22, 24). Marriage is not just a property transaction but a deep interpersonal relationship. A man is supposed to bring happiness to his wife (24:5).
Cook admits that there is no way that the modern reader’s first impression will not be that Deuteronomy is intolerant and chauvinistic. There is a symbol system here that modern readers should not make their own. There are no more Ammonites of Moabites (23:3) and there is no more worship of the goddess Ishtar–the context of the laws about cross dressing (22:5) and the ban on emasculated men (23:1). So these laws have no force today.
In fact, Cook sees the Bible itself setting aside some of the rigidity of these laws and making way for a new future. An obvious example is the Book of Ruth. It sets aside the exclusion of Moabites (23:3). And it presents sexuality in a less restrictive light. It seems to smile upon an instance of premarital sleeping together (Ruth 3:14).
Then there is Isaiah 56:3:
No foreigner who becomes a follower of the Lord should say,
‘The Lord will certainly exclude me from his people.’
The eunuch should not say,
‘Look, I am like a dried-up tree’ (NET Bible)
This does not contradict Deuteronomy. It is an apocalyptic fulfillment in which God brings about a new order. This paves the way for New Testament inclusion.
Also I was interested in Cook’s observation that although 23:17 seems to absolutely forbid sacred prostitution, 23:18 assumes that it will continue to exist.